Test pendulum swings back to England

Graeme Swann celebrates after taking the wicket of Australia's Steve Smith. Picture: AP

Graeme Swann celebrates after taking the wicket of Australia's Steve Smith. Picture: AP

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What a match, what a compelling, thrilling Ashes Test match and if the series follows the pattern of this first Test then all players, coaches and fans are going to endure a nerve shredding two months.

Make no mistake, this match has been a wonderful rollercoaster of emotions, skill and ambition. With nearly every passing session it has been possible to argue for either side as the eventual victors.

The momentum has swung that frequently and sharply, from the first morning when the England bowlers exposed the weak underbelly of Australia’s batting to the wonderful record breaking innings of 19-year-old debutant, Ashton Agar. After the thrill of the Lions rugby and Andy Murray’s success, it is the turn of cricket to enthral the nation. What a series this is set up to be. Australia know they can compete. The past four days have proved that to everybody but most importantly to themselves.

They are not exceptional, sometimes not even good, but the release and relief that Agar’s first-innings 98 provided has given them a joy in the team and their cricket that had been missing for months.

And if they win this match they will believe they can accomplish something special. A group of players that looked a ramshackle collection have become a close unit. Maybe it is the work of new coach Darren Lehmann, or maybe the realisation that it is the old enemy England against them. Whatever the reason, they look much more competitive than was initially feared and England in contrast look more vulnerable.

The equation is 137 with only four wickets remaining and normally that would be considered a simple win for England but not even the most ardent England supporter would bet more than a shilling on that after the first innings.

If Australia win they will have recorded the highest chase at Trent Bridge and on a turning pitch will have thoroughly deserved every plaudit they receive. Their hopes rest with the lower order but one good partnership will have England panicking. Remember Edgbaston in 2005? This could be another that goes down to the wire.

From the first day, the pitch has been exceptionally dry but surprisingly slow. So once the frenetic 
adrenaline-fuelled cricket of the first two innings was complete it became a test of patience for both batsmen and bowlers. Ian Bell proved what could be done if a batsman was prepared to play late and straight and his century was the foundation of England setting a challenging total of 311.

Interestingly, his style and eagerness to slide and glide the ball down to the vacant third man was so effective that it almost became a template for the Australians. Chris Rogers and Shane Watson started well, the former stubborn and the latter more aggressive as is his wont but it worked as the hard new ball was easier to score off. They took the early thrusts from James Anderson and accumulated tidily. The battle was clearly going to be one of spin from Graeme Swann and reverse swing when the ball was old enough. Alastair Cook understood this and brought Swann on early but for once the effusive off-spinner failed to tease and torment. He became frustrated, mostly with himself and delivered more full-tosses than a front line bowler should in a season. Nerves? Or lack of bowling?

The pitch was helpful, he just failed to exploit it fully early in the piece. The breakthrough came then from a good piece of straight bowling by Stuart Broad the first ball after the post-lunch drinks break. Watson felt aggrieved and reviewed but it was clipping leg stump. Wickets needed to be prised out and the runs stemmed. Broad did that as did Steven Finn but it was Joe Root that took the second wicket.

Ed Cowan had looked skittish at the crease and an expansive drive on the stroke of lunch did for him. He did not get to the pitch of the ball and, considering Root was bowling round the wicket and targeting a large foothold, it was careless if not thoughtless batting. The edge was comfortable for Jonathan Trott at slip and it was noticeable how England left the field buzzing whereas 45 minutes earlier they had been dispirited and flat.

On the resumption, Swann was a different bowler. The bounce was back in his step, the smile replaced the rictus grin and his control was much greater. Runs were hard to find and there was always the feeling that a wicket would fall. England had control, it just remained for them to stick to their plans and hope no Australian delivered a counterpunch innings. They were so effective at it that in the 30 overs from Cowan’s dismissal they conceded only 60 runs and took four more wickets.

Anderson deceived Rogers with a slower cutter, Michael Clarke edged Broad behind and then Swann claimed two LBWs with quite brilliant bowling. Steve Smith went back and was undone by sharp turn and Phil Hughes suffered as his review was negated as the ball was shown to pitch just enough on leg stump to count. Swann was back and looking threatening. The dangerous Brad Haddin and Agar survived to stumps.

Is there another twist to come? In this match it would almost be disappointing if there wasn’t.

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